In Remembrance of Richard Wagamese

Sam Wall | News Editor

There are days when the sadness of the world feels overwhelming. When this sadness comes knocking, it is never slow or gentle, it is a rough punch busting splinters to the floor. So I write. I journal, I poem, I story. A few days ago, we lost an incredible author. A teacher, a poet, a storyteller, a journalist, and a guide. I never knew him. I only ever met him through his work, and that itself threatened to blow me clean away. He was still publishing the last of his dozen books in 2016, Embers. His first book, Keeper’n Me, was required reading for First Nations 100. The book was published in 1994, the same year my brother was born.

I was born just over two years earlier. I try to imagine the world then, and the people who read it at the time, and how it may have impacted them. I also wonder who read it, and who didn’t. What if more people read it and understood the context, of this snapshot of history, of a life story within other life stories and onward into the wider society. Regardless, it was the first time I had read something like this and felt something stir deep inside me. For the sense that I could find healing in learning more.

Richard Wagamese was an Ojibway author from Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Ontario. As an Ojibway person, his work resonated strongly with me. For most of my life, the word “Ojibway” is all I knew about the culture. About the heritage whose heartstrings have been stretched over generations, over time, over nations, over a colonial history. At the same time that I was in class learning about residential schools, the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, and so many other injustices. I was also reading a story about a man coming home. I was reading about finding a home in culture, finally, after a lifetime of confusion, of only hearing the misguided words of others. I learned of the all-encompassing loss that digs itself deeply into our collective history. It may as well alter our genetics for how the grief is passed down through generations, taking different shapes like real life monsters. Except we were left without a story to tell us how to deal with those monsters. The future felt bleak and we lost our way into addictions, abuse, and mental illness.

Luckily, culture is stronger than that. His words brought a deep longing inside of me, for a home that I don’t know where to find, that probably doesn’t exist anymore. My family only moves farther away from it all, from Ontario and Ojibway, from home and the whole mess. My brother is the only family member I share this particular complex heritage with. We feel these losses, maybe not the same ones as Wagamese, but the losses come from a shared root. I want to learn to see the beauty in our diverse heritages.

My Ojibway heritage is comparatively small, as I am also British and Scandinavian. I am white and I look it. This European heritage gives me a free pass on colonial history. Like many I didn’t understand the debt we owe to the first inhabitants of this land, and that it will never be paid off, not ever, by anyone, in any lifetime. This is how I come to you, and I don’t aim to speak for anyone else, whether individual or cultural group. This is what his work meant to me as a cultural vagrant, as one wandering through modern Canadian life, trying to make some sense of it. So I learn. So I read. So I listen as best as I can to all those whose wisdom extends back generations, whose lives were irrevocably changed by my ancestors. If I am experiencing this, there must be others too, who feel conflicted in their pain, feel conflicted about allowing themselves to feel the pain. I will not allow myself to be ripped in two by this. So I write.

If Richard Wagamese has taught me anything, it is the healing that can happen when we learn our culture, whatever that may be. I wish I could have met you, my social media is filling with more and more words from those who knew you. But I know I have many more books to read. You knew, and learned the hard way, that our histories curl into the muscles of our legs, roots tie us to places, to spaces we occupy and move through. As we walk, we carry these histories with us, they are a part of us, no matter how hard we try to run away from them.